Last Monday was a once-in-a-lifetime day for me. I spent the day in D.C., being honored on the Senate floor by Senator Bob Casey as part of a Black History Month tribute. It was an honor to be recognized by Senator Casey and by the presence of my Temple colleagues. In particular, President Theobald offered very warm and complimentary comments about my contributions to the University. All of the compliments did not take away from the eerie sense that I was listening to my eulogy, which was both surreal (am I dying?) and welcomed (I’m really gratified to know that the time I spent meant something). In the end, though, I was proud for Temple.
Most of us don’t get the chance to hear our own eulogies, especially with friends and family assembled from such a wide range of venues. It was, and there really is no other word for it, magical. It re-doubled my commitment to be a good and kind person, which I remind myself means slowing down to be present in each moment. And it gave me a minute to reflect on some of the moments – really, they are too numerous to recount here – that have stayed with me over the course of my career. The day also gave me a chance to reflect on how rarely we tell people when they’ve made a difference in our lives. It’s a funny thing. One Sunday a couple of years ago, I wrote a note to a Philadelphia lawyer who had been helpful to me when he didn’t have to. We didn’t attend the same schools, and he’s not a Temple alum. But he opened several doors of opportunity for me during my career. So I wrote him a note to thank him for all he’d done for me. On Tuesday or Wednesday he called me and said, “Did my wife call you?” I said, “No; I’ve never met your wife.” He said, “Oh, good. I thought maybe she’d called you to tell you that I’m sick – or worse, dying. I’ve never gotten this sort of note before.” We had a good laugh when I assured him that I’d heard nothing to suggest his demise was imminent. Thankfully, he’s still with us today.
“As a general matter, I think of myself as careful and cautious, not at all reckless. But looking back, it seems I’ve dared a lot.”
The day also offered me some perspective on my own experiences. In his remarks, Senator Casey mentioned (both in the floor remarks and at the Symposium that followed) that I’d found it hard as a young lawyer since I didn’t see any lawyers in front of me who looked like me. It’s true – I had no one to model myself after. As a teenager, I aspired to be a legal secretary working for a famous lawyer – like Perry Mason’s secretary, Della Street. For lawyers, all I knew was Perry Mason, but he was the wrong gender. By the time I was in law school, his secretary, Della Street, occupied the wrong job. As a general matter, I think of myself as careful and cautious, not at all reckless. But looking back, it seems I’ve dared a lot. Much of the daring came from moving forward when the world in front of me was completely opaque. I now realize that I had a lot I had to figure out for myself and by myself. It’s like stepping into a dark room and hoping you find your away around without too many bumps and bruises.
Though I grew up of very modest means (I could not be a third grade Brownie because my family could not afford the uniform), I was fortunate, in that I had the opportunity, while growing up, to dream – even though I didn’t know I was doing so at the time. Dreaming is what makes daring possible. I think, too, that there are far too many young people today who don’t dream and for whom their limited vision becomes a life reality. The way up is education and inspiration, both too often in short supply. I’m grateful for the inspiration of that vision and for the education that has made so much more possible for me, and I worry what will happen if we do not figure out how to restore both to our young people now.
A colleague asked me, after Monday’s events had passed, whether there was a moment when I felt like my job was finished, or that I had “made it.” The answer is no. I view my role on the Temple faculty as my last job, but even while serving as Dean I don’t feel like I’ve made it. I’m in a job of service. It’s an honor, but not the sort of perch from which one claims victory. That said, I’m profoundly grateful – and even more so in the wake of such an unbelievable day – to have found my way to this place and for all of the friendships, memories, and experiences I’ve collected along the way.